The Souvenir

Directed By Joanna Hogg

Starring – Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Plot – Julie (Byrne), A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man, named Anthony (Burke). She defies her protective mother (Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Non-linear storytelling. What’s so synthetically natural about the exposition in the film is that it’s delivered in a series of events in a girl’s life, rather than one cohesive running story that connects each scene together. This makes the screenplay at times feel like a jagged collection of memories, rather than a conventional story, and speaks volumes more towards the spontaneity of life that is constantly evolving. This requires audiences to pay attention to key images in the background, as well as stay fully committed in the unraveling of each conversation, otherwise the answers don’t fill in with the question properly. Not everything that happens in detail is shown on-screen, and I greatly appreciate any film that makes the audience work hard for its answers, refusing to spoon-feed us like nearly every film does today with its valued exposition.

– Unorthodox camera angles. Hogg is definitely a director who loves her mirrors, and her use of incorporating them into nearly every scene is done so in a way that presents body movements and interactions in a more revealing perspective than we would normally receive shooting in front of our actors. Some of these shots are truly breathtaking in capturing the dynamic that is slightly off focus, all the while studying the change in tonal temperature that is present in the foreground, giving us a complete picture of the dramatic pulse that is transpiring between these two people learning about each other for the first time. In addition to this, the personal reflection shots off a POV angle, where the character’s are speaking to us the audience, putting us front-and-center in the heat of the moment to better convey the love, anguish, and humility developed from its many conflicts.

– Stimulating performances. Before I even start on the performances that were out of this world, I commend the casting agent for casting Tilda Swinton’s real life daughter as her daughter in the movie. This not only transcends the art that is persistent on-screen, but cements the visual believability better than it could ever possibly be. For my first film seeing her, Honor Swinton Byrne completely blew me away. From a once reserved girl on the verge of her sexual and creative awakening, to the life-tested control she exerts over every angle of her life, this woman harvested a constant plunge of gut-wrenching emotional pull that not only made you invest in her character, but also created a deeper narrative for the personal battle taking place inside of her, courtesy of some timely narration that was appreciated. Her male opposite is also played wonderfully by Tom Burke, another first timer for me personally, who juggled the bi-polar complexities that his character moved through like a roller-coaster, thanks in whole to a drug influence that depicted his change emotionally and physically before our very eyes. The chemistry between Honor and Burke not only felt rich with honesty because of the many trysts they are forced to endure, but also advantageous to both actors who capture our attention with facial expressions that tell the story long before dialogue ever could. Tilda Swinton’s physical performance, donning a grey wig and wrinkle prosthetics, also radiates with an essence of natural aging and seamless delivery that transforms what we’ve expected from the actress before our very eyes. It’s cool to see the two generations of Swinton dominate the screen, and outlines a relationship that is a loveletter to mothers everywhere who go from protector to protected as time carries on.

– Story within the story. This is a film that feels very personal to Hogg, for the way it spiritualizes the highs and lows of first time love, and upon further digging, Hogg has clearly expressed herself from the trials and tribulations of a similar story that she took from her own life growing up. The flat used in the film is a perfect replica of the one Hogg lived in during that same age, constructed in an airplane hanger that is continuously projecting 35 mm photographs that she took as a student in her 20’s. She is a London film student similar to the female protagonist in the film, and actually was best friends with Tilda since both of them were ten years old. I mention this as a positive because I’ve always felt that the best told stories stem from real life experiences, and there’s a certain articulation to the psychology, as well as authenticity to the specific detail, that speaks volumes to the nourishment of a particular experience, and I find it therapeutic for Hogg that she was able to bring so much of her past experiences with her to the bettering of her picture.

– Effective production value. This film takes place in the 80’s, and to capture the aesthetic of such a specific time, the production crew uses a fine blend of grainy cinematography, a multitude of different camera lenses, and an attention to detail with wardrobe, decor, and soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the cocaine-driven 80’s nostalgia. There are parts in this film where the imagery encased remarkably transported me to where I legitimately felt like I was watching a shelved picture from the 80’s, and even with my picky eye for detail, I couldn’t find a single instance of any object or depiction that soiled the integrity of its unique time frame. The objects of the apartment are also documenting a story within their many shifts and disappearances that I don’t want to spoil here, and only mention because its brilliance used to channel maturity is something you rarely ever think about when it comes to set pieces during an aging story.

– Accurate depiction of first love. Some women will view the love depicted as ridiculous, but I feel like every woman has dated someone that today their wisdom would tell them differently, and that’s what I find so intoxicating about this relationship. We the audience feel leagues above the girl in terms of knowledge. We know what signs to look for, we know where everything is headed, and it’s that aspect that is frustrating but in a way that is entirely for our investment in the well-being of the character. There is no initial first spark really, it’s just that a guy is paying her attention at a party, and especially in the case of her being a virgin, that first time always exposes the vulnerability that women face, especially considering the kind of influence a look from him holds over her through the first half of this film. It’s not the most delightful watch in this regard, but no film should be shunned for its unabashed honesty, and this film has it in spades, reminding us behind every corner of the wisdom that she will gain because of her timultuous experiences.

– The judgment game. In Hogg’s ability to give us so little time with every supporting character, with the exception of the occasional party or on-set scene, the film manages this level of uncertainty with each of their intentions that puts as in the shoes of Honor’s Julie. Especially during the late second act, when a barrage of these characters received more time in front of the lens, I began to wonder who had her best intentions in mind, and who was there to be another Phil on the highway to her accomplishing her goals. This once again begs the audience member to invest themselves in the unraveling of these exchanges, making us feel as a parent of sorts to Julie’s newfound breath of escape, and it outlines a level of weightless suspense that feels beneficial to the film without smothering it in urgency. This feeds more into the idea of Hogg grounding this story so deeply in reality, as anyone who comes into our lives really is just a smiling face until we get to know them.

– Meaning behind the title. The title “The Souvenir” is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover into a tree. This painting is shown twice throughout the movie, and at least from a metaphorical stance can easily be emitted from what transpires in the way Anthony influences Julie throughout. Without spoiling anything, I took away a complex tone of permanent scarring from the painting, which alludes to the permanence of someone etched into the memory of the carver’s psyche, for better or worse. A film’s title should summarize everything enclosed within its walls of creativity, and the title used for Hogg’s nearly autobiographical feature is one that requires digging beneath the material if one is to fully understand the meaning of its message.

NEGATIVES

– The pacing. Especially the case in the first act of the film, the unorthodox nature of storytelling and event depiction is a bit of a jump to overcome when you’re getting settled in to a film’s style. In this reflection, if you can get through the opening half hour of the film, your investment will give way to the meatier material that fills the remainder of the film. With the romance in particular feeling so cryptic early on, there’s very little to bounce off of within the initial meetings between these two lovers, and even for editing that remains patient throughout the film, these first few scenes feel so dramatically slower than anything else that accompanies it.

– Musical incorporation. I didn’t care much for the film’s soundtrack, as the inclusion of pop tracks like “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs felt like such an unnecessary forcing into a film that is stripped down in reality without them. In a sense, the scenes with no musical incorporation helped maintain this slice of real life that so much of the film was buried in, and to add songs, especially ones as familiar with the decade as these, gives it an overbearing feeling of obviousness for time-stamped gimmick that this film doesn’t have to stretch itself for. If they were played during the party scenes, I would be fine with them, but their inclusions during moments of self-reflection for Julie, feel like an obvious distraction in the clarity of the situation.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Late Night

Directed By Nisha Ganatra

Starring – Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow

The Plot – Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and…..presto. Molly (Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determine to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career, and possible effect even bigger change at the same time.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Best comedy of the year. As a film that is full of audience laughter and participation, this one hits it out of the park quite frequently. There’s a rich blend of varying degrees of entertaining comedy in the script, but the interaction between characters, especially that of the two female leads, conjures up several example of sharp-tongued wit and bold sarcasm, which is completely up my alley for the kind of humor that I appreciate from a comedy. The film also doesn’t stay reserved as just this, eventually evolving into this dramatic crumbling of walls from every side of Katherine’s life, which succeeds at delivering no shortage of dramatic heft, and proving once more that while comedy is the way to get the butts in the seats, it’s rich life experiences that make you invest more into the characters, and every transformation in the screenplay feels every bit as earned as it does necessary to the conflicts springing from all around.

– Wisdom in social commentary. One could expect that a film starring an Indian actress getting a job in a male caucasian dominated workplace would be full of poignancy about the uphill climb that minorities and women face when inserted into this environment, and the film does have this unapologetic stance on depicting this cold, callous world, what truly surprised me was how it speaks on both sides of the coin in this regard. The film doesn’t make Molly a flat-out victim as much as it makes her an equal in the problem of hiring, explaining to us that she was only picked in the first place to fill a workplace quota. While this could be condemning for a 21st century politically correct landscape full of sensitivity, I commend it for its honesty in valuing both sides of the debate, highlighting that we as a society are still a long way out from making it a level sided playing field for all to contend with.

– Strong characterization. What I love about the screenplay is that it very much feels episodic in the way it brings along several on-going subplots at a time, as well as values each character in frame for being someone so much more than an occasional cameo. Instead of following just Thompson and Kaling, the film values rich supporting cast members like Hugh Dancy, Dennis O’ Hare, John Lithgow, and the legions of other familiar faces that fill this board room of testosterone that a majority of the film takes place in. This is huge for the film because it allows us the audience several dynamics to establish between this group to give the dominant plot in the foreground time to age and pace accordingly, and it’s entirely successful, as there wasn’t one side of the spectrum that I didn’t enjoy spending time with and feeling firmly invested in. This is a film that values all of its cast, big or small, and with plenty of time invested, we really get to see this team grow together and understand what makes each of the tick in regards to workplace interaction.

– Surprising performances. Thompson and Kaling are both national treasures, but what amazed me was the undeterred energy that each brought to their respective roles in making this feel like a big stakes drama. For Kaling, it’s finally the chance to shed some of that comic muscle and establish her as a watery-eyed kindred spirit, who we the audience engage and invest into. Mindy shows a soft side that makes her a shoe-in for future romantic comedies, and balances a fine line of intelligence, wit, and a radiant smile to make us fall for the positivity of her character. Thompson deserves academy recognition, and I’m not kidding. Katherine is a powder keg of emotional response, feeling her way through a fierce tug-of-war between a network ready to pull the plug on her show, as well as a husband feeling the same constraints thanks to a battle with Parkinson’s. Thompson’s earnesty and flawed protagonist is something that gives her dimensions from a character like Meryl Streep’s in “The Devil Wears Prada”, all the while preserving this side of vulnerability that transforms her for us, as well as the audience on-screen who keep the ratings going. Emma gives us many powerful gut-punches during scenes of pain, as well as a damp blanket of cynicism during initial meetings with her team, and it led to this bigger picture for the character that kept her maintained as this enigma of sorts, which in turn made it easier to understand why her show has been the stable that it’s been for so many decades.

– Informative. In the same vein as “Spotlight” did for newsrooms, “Late Night” presents a vivid rendering of a television writers room, complete with thinktank discussions and fast-paced confrontations, which feel authentic in their progressions. To absorb as much in this room as possible is understanding how conventionalism played such a pivotal foe in Katherine’s diminishing returns with her audience, with this broken link in communication between them being this obvious adversity to understanding what makes the host so endearing. Years of experience prescribes arrogance, and conjures up this difficult pill of truth for each of them to swallow with regards to the failing reputation of the show. Being the writer of this film, Kaling definitely has the experience and wisdom to accurately portray these kind of dire situations, and it’s why much of the material encased feels authentic in its wisdom.

– Dane Cook. No, he’s not in the film, but to anyone who was an avid MadTV watcher like me, will remember Ike Barinholtz’s near perfect impression of the infamous stand-up comic, and in certain elements it returns in this film. Barinholtz plays this popular stand-up comic who is shamed by Katherine because his material feels very degrading and thirsty for attention. In addition to this, Ike’s deliveries feel very fast paced, crude in dialogue, and flimsy for depth in material. Sound familiar? If I didn’t list this on the positives, I would be doing my final grade a disservice, because I could watch Ike portray this character for years, and never get tired of it. Beyond the debate of who he is impersonating, the character reminds us of everything that is wrong with today’s comedy landscape, where audiences trade in intelligence of storytelling for vulgarity and cheap sound effects that should be marketed towards an infant.

– Art imitating life? There are many situations in the film that feel plucked from real life, and establish a sense of humanity within these celebrities who we view as anything but human, thanks to their infamy. Some examples that I found were definitely the pushing of a fresh, new host to the decades old show (Jay Leno), a network pressuring a classic host to adapt with the times (David Letterman), and a ratings slump despite being prestigious in awards recognition (Conan O’ Brien). What I love about this is it summarizes the best of every world in favor of this one lone embodiment, then makes that figure a woman, which is something that we haven’t quite yet had hosting a late night show on a major network. So we get to blend the reality with fantasy for a result that proves the human similarities of men and women, in hopes to erase this line of separation once and for all in every facet of entertainment.

– Costume design. For a movie so grounded in reality, there is a strong use of fashion in the film, specifically within the two female leads, that fruitfully delves into the contrast in each of their personalities. For Katherine, the use of pantsuits and lack of skin shown speaks volumes to the strict demeanor that has earned her intimidating presence among her staff. For Kaling’s Molly, it’s a combination of free-flowing sundresses and vibrancy in colors that illustrates her bubbly personality front-and-center, allowing her to visually convey her as this colorful breath of fresh air that this team so desperately needs. The flare of fashion persists throughout the film, hinting at something deeper beneath its intention, and does so without feeling like a distraction to what’s transpiring around it.

NEGATIVES

– Romantic subplot. Not only is this the most unnecessary aspect of the script, but its lack of development leaves so much on the bone of curiosity from the lack of what develops. First of all, I don’t think there should’ve been a romantic subplot because it demeans the integrity of a female character, and feeds into her sleeping her way to the top. Secondly, the romance between Dancy and Kaling goes literally nowhere, disappearing for long periods of screen time without further elaboration or exposition to remind us that it is still a thing. Another romantic subplot materializes by the film’s end, and its result is so shoe-horned in to the closing minutes that it’s not only disappointing for how they built these two characters along, but also for how it comes out of nowhere from the lack of previous establishing scenes. It’s the biggest mess to a film that is otherwise written pretty tightly.

– Stilted stand-up. This is a continuous problem with the stand-up comedy world being portrayed in film. It’s rare in a movie where I will laugh during a stand-up comedy scene, and especially in this case coming from someone who is a prophet of that environment, how is the material left on the page so terribly unfunny? Maybe it’s a point to prove that stand-up comedy overall isn’t funny, especially considering it’s mostly ushered in by that Dane Cook character that I mentioned earlier, but this is a repetitive problem in every movie featuring stand-up comedy ever, and while it isn’t enough to ruin the sharp sting of the sword in conversations and casual dialogues, it does take some steam away from what Kaling is capable of as a screenwriter.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Shaft

Directed By Tim Story

Starring – Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Richard Roundtree

The Plot – JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Usher), may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather coat, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.

Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– R-rated humor. This is the only aspect of the film where the material feels reminiscent to that of the 1970’s origin story, with a rating designation that gives the gags zero boundaries in terms of what it can rightfully access. From this advantage, much of the actors, especially that of Jackson, feels like they are quipping it up and having fun with the spoofing nature of espionage films that often times take themselves far too seriously, and it brought forth a barrage of laughs for me personally that landed around 60% of the time. For my money, the dynamic between gun-heavy father and tech-savy son garners the film’s biggest means for comparison, and brings forth plenty of audience reactions when the two are contrasted side-by-side.

– Slamming soundtrack. Both sides of the musical spectrum, with the intoxicating musical score from composer Christopher Lennertz, as well as the 70’s heavy influence of soul groove R&B, move mountains in their abilities to emit this feeling of fun in the atmosphere that the screenplay often has difficulty replicating, and establishes the importance of a particular track for the perfect feeling within the moment. Aside from the legendary Shaft theme composed by Isaac Hayes, that pops up at the most opportune times in the film, the soundtrack includes a variety of decade heavy favorites like “Get Up Off of That Thing” by James Brown, “Mary Jane” by Rick James, and “Best of My Love” by The Emotions. Each are articulated in their own unique imagining to what is transpiring around it, and each go far beyond the topical sense in mastering why it feels so essential to these sequences.

– Performances. Jackson is easily the highlight of the film for me, gaining the ability to delve into the blacksploitation icon that is John Shaft one more time, and while I feel like his performance feels more like Samuel L. Jackson instead of Shaft, the results are indulging enough to remind us why he is still one of the most charismatic actors working today. The chemistry between he and Usher do effectively balance the feeling of father and son without it ever feeling condemning to the character, and Jackson’s unfazed confidence and super cool swagger puts the age debate on hold at every opportunity given to prove himself once more. Also solid was Regina Hall as the estranged mother of his son. These two are given many scenes to bounce accordingly off of each other, and it leads to a delightfully sinister war of words that still hints at some love beating just beneath the surface.

– A love letter to New York. Setting is especially essential in the world of John Shaft, and this newest film wastes no time in immersing us in the heat of the environment, with some establishing shots that puts us at the pulse of the big apple. In a sense, New York itself is a character in the movie, and what proves this idea is the way that the city imagery or skyline finds its way into nearly every shot that our characters move in and out of frame with, establishing great weight in setting to the film’s conscience that makes it difficult to ever forget. Why this matters so much is because John Shaft is New York and vice versa, and this reflection makes it easier to comprehend why he holds such an advantage over every single one of his opposition, casting an inevitable feeling of doom that practically taps them on the shoulder and reminds them that this bad mother (SHUT YOUR MOUTH) is coming to right the wrongs.

NEGATIVES

– Easily forgettable. I have nothing personal against Tim Story as a director, but “Shaft” is a constant reminder of why there’s nothing poignant or elusive about his films that make any studio seek him out. This movie gives us nothing new or refreshing in idealism to counteract the tropes and cliches that are practically around every corner in this movie, and balance absolutely no level of urgency to compliment even a shred of dramatic heft to such dangerous stakes. Story’s movements behind the lens are every bit as conventionally bland as they are redundant in evolution, giving away an opportunity in crafting this beautiful hybrid of 70’s grainy visuals with 2019 technology that the film so desperately required in creating even a shred of anything that makes it stand out visually from its 2000 original chapter, or even its 70’s blacksploitation films, which are somehow more alluring than this film.

– Uninspired. Speaking of those 70’s Blacksploitation films, the lack of influence of them in this film wipes away any opportunity for the film to truly capture the atmosphere needed to fully sell its tone or ridiculousness of its title character. I wish films today would experiment more with hokey sound effects or even jumpy editing that could occasionally repeat. The only thing that has come close recently is Quentin Tarrantino’s work in “Death Proof”, and it’s unfortunate that with so much of these aspects of style and scintillation of visual seduction being lost, we fail to properly identify with what kind of film this is accurately trying to convey. With more fun in the film’s cinematography, the production could’ve gained much needed word of mouth to put the butts in the seats, but instead we’re left with a watered down finished product that doesn’t even measure up to the 2000 version in terms of experimentation.

– Hypocritical. Making a John Shaft movie in 2019 is anything but easy. He’s a well known masoganistic character who doesn’t age well with today’s shift in political or entertainment stratospheres, and while the film does attempt to poke fun and outline everything wrong with John’s idealism within his profession, the results are anything but convincing that it’s fully on-board with growing with the times. For one, there’s a subplot involving an Islam group that is of course played for terrorism throughout the film, yet earlier in the first act the same movie mentioned how its cops are anything but racist when it comes to Islam characters. As I said, it says this, and then commits the very same problem that its commentary mentions. Then there’s the female thing with how it portrays women within this world, with a female character mentioning how she’s a real woman, implying she’s too smart to fall into traps, and then she falls into a trap that gets her kidnapped. As usual, the female is the damsel in distress who is only there to kiss the hero at the end, and is another shining example of why this series has come under much controversy within a world that has aged without it. Whether you support this stance or not, some change and surprise is good in films like these, because predictability is the last thing you want in a movie that is a modern day crime noir of sorts.

– Weak antagonists. Second straight review I have mentioned this, and it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t value what a meaningful villain brings to the psychology of a jaded hero. As is the case with this film, where we get a mystery so easily telegraphed and full of decades old cliches in set-up that the movie practically tells us in the first act. In addition to this, the dialogue within this group feels so unnaturally unnerving that you can practically see the lines within the pages of script that they were typed on. It’s really bad in a movie when the more that a villain talks, the less human they become, and if Shaft was given a villain who felt like anything other than a generic time-filler, then we would see a side of adversity for him to overcome, which would not only feel beneficial to the character’s personal growth but also to us the audience, who would feel more invested in the ways that Shaft must adapt to overcome them.

– By the numbers action sequences. There is nothing of style, substance, or complexity to the film’s action set pieces, which constantly feel like a remote speed bump on the way to more overstuffed exposition between Father and Son. This is Shaft, right? The man who is action first when it comes to his conflicts. Instead, the action sequences are so bland and ineffective in terms of piercing anything eye-catching to us the audience, who are forced to endure sequence after sequence of mundane ammunition exchanges without even a slight hint of creative depth to sell them along the way. One example is in “Deadpool”, a movie with around the same budget as “Shaft”, but uses visual numbers on the bullets fired to articulate to its audience how many shots are left in the merk’s chamber. This is just one example, but something like a Shaft movie should never have problems selling its creativity, but instead it’s just another example of why Story was the wrong man in channeling a new vision for a legendary icon of the ACTION-first spectrum.

– Weak characterization. This is especially prominent with the youthful characters within the movie, who weren’t engaging even in the slightest to this critic. Most of the reason for this is the way they are presented, with John Shaft Jr being so much of an opposite compared to the parental figure we all know and love. We are forced to spend a majority of our time with this character, as he is our visual narrator of sorts, and there’s nothing even slightly intriguing or confirming about his character. We are told frequently throughout that he is this computer genius, but we never get to see this at work besides typical fast-typing that is prominent in every film involving a computer genius. Likewise, his romantic interest (Played by the immensely talented Alexandra Shipp) has these sudden attitude shifts that almost entirely compromise her character set-up as this sweetheart of a girl who has always stood by Junior regardless. She overly dislikes certain characters without even knowing a shred of the backstory behind it, and is depicted as nothing more than the damsel that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Weak characters like these diminish positive returns each time Jackson is given a brief break from screen time.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Men In Black: International

Directed By F. Gary Gray

Starring – Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson

The Plot – The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest, most global threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some adult language and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– Intricacy in action set pieces. While a majority of the backgrounds and action sequence designs are of computer generation descent, the vibrations of their use, as well as a slick, fast paced presentation, makes for an infectious dynamic that often feels too enthralling to not get lost in. The fight choreography here is top notch, but it’s really the energetic use of choppy editing used in a positive light that really kept my eyes glued to the screen, and kept the consistency of urgency locked firmly into the heat of the moment between the two sides in battle. If this film does one thing better than its predecessors, it’s in the way it incorporates the action side into the Science Fiction genre, balancing enough restrain through nearly two hours, then paying off in spades once the stakes get raised.

– Star studded cast. Everything from the fluffy cameos of Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson, to the dominance of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, works here, and kept me hooked into the meat of the story where the screenplay often failed it. The chemistry between Chris and Tessa definitely holds over from its charms from two Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the tease of romance between their characters without fully committing to its cliche reverence is something I greatly appreciated from their dynamic, perhaps leaving room for movement in future installments. Thompson commands a combination of cerebral intelligence, child-like innocence, and a sense of overall pride that burns from the sense of style that she emits from the character. Likewise, Hemsworth continues his comic precision with this slacker mentality that works as the perfect counteract to his rock-hard studly features, giving the audience enough reminder why he will never be limited to just one drama, all the while etching out a character that surprisingly does distance itself from the familiarity of Thor that I was expecting.

– World building. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the MIB franchise is the use of gadgets that breeds charm in arms within a series of films that are four-deep at this point, yet still find ways to astonish in this respect. The typical Cadillac used by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is traded in for a fine line of Lexus land and air attack, like the QZ 618 Galactic Enforcer helicoptor, or the RC.F automobile that preserves a comical side of British craftsmanship. In addition to this, the introduction of all-chrome weaponry and where it sprouts from adds great integral value not only to the vehicle itself, but also to the automobile creativity that derives from their designs. Nothing feels too far-fetched, nor redundant when compared to the other tools of the trade from previous films, and cements the idea that the Men In Black are still at the cusp of arms advancement to better contend with outside world adversity.

– Distancing. This is the hardest sell for fans of the original trilogy, but I commend this film greatly for barely mentioning the events of those previous films, and choosing to blaze its own trail of originality within this secretive world. This allows the film to never feel restrained or conventional from those that came before it, all the while conjuring up this mystery that, for the first time ever, someone within the bureau has deceived them. I also feel that the long distance setting of London and Paris in the film better helps in the distancing, outlining a whole new line of rules and etiquette for the geographic setting that better serves and establishes the supporting characters surrounding the black suits. It would be easy for a sequel to save time and energy with re-heating the same room temperature gags and directions that worked more times than not in early editions, but screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway extend the lifespan for this series by nearly pressing reset on everything we’ve come to know and expect, and it leads to a sequel that creatively feels like the first fresh one of the entire franchise.

– Pacing. Even for nearly two hours long, the film never lagged or stalled for my investment into it, despite me having zero interest in it heading into it. This is not only a testament to the energy in chemistry between Hemsworth and Thompson that I mentioned earlier, but also in the ever-changing geography of the film, that vibrantly feeds into the big world international feel of the MIB promotion. There’s this breezy consistency in scene transitions that keeps the story firmly on its toes, and leaves so little of downtime between scenes of valued exposition, where a screenplay typically loses half of its audience. This was as easy of a two hour sit that I’ve been through this entire year, and while the movie does have a lot of problems in its structure, it’s impossible for me to say that I didn’t at least have fun with the way I fell in love with these characters.

NEGATIVES

– No established villain. Are there antagonists in the movie? Yes, but my biggest problem is that because of the restraints of a weak whodunnit? the villain characters just kind of hang in the balance until their inevitable confrontations with the heroes comes to fruition. This is especially tragic for Ferguson, who we are fortunate enough to see don a Cleopatra wig and free-flowing gown, yet unfortunate enough to only get around ten minutes with her in the entire film. In addition to this, there are twin characters who are on the trail for a mysterious jewel (What else is new?), but never receive any kind of time or exposition to further sell the impact of their invasion. This is again another case of too many cooks in the kitchen, as the work of dual screenwriters and many antagonists feels like a virtual hodgepodge of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, and for a film’s underlying urgency, there’s essentially none in this installment.

– Texture of computer generation. While I did enjoy the weight established from C.G character properties in the film, the designs and vibrancy of their designs counteracted the work of some exceptionally done cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh. Even if intentional, there’s this visually jarring glow emanating from all hollow properties, giving scenes these very distracting and uncomfortably ugly circumstances that not only doesn’t match the boldness in tone from previous movies, but also constantly reminded me of the missed opportunity that this film could’ve attained from make-up and prosthetics work that could’ve earned it awards recognition. This is easily my least offensive problem within the film, but it’s something that came up frequently throughout, and gave off this cheap feeling of quality from the very same company that has visually rendered Spider-Man since 2002.

– Irritating sound design. Here comes the critic in me. Scenes like the one that takes place in the club in this film are ones that standout like a midget hooker in a WNBA game. In this scene, the two MIB agents can communicate with an alien in a club that features loud blaring music by softly talking to them while standing five feet away. Considering I can’t hear what they’re saying, I find it difficult to believe that the characters in the film can either, and these scenes always drive me nuts in a movie where loud music is bombastic. Speaking of bombastic, the overall musical score from Chris Bacon, with traces from Danny Elfman’s original score, are very much effective in delivering the heat of the moment, but are blared at such ear-shattering levels that it gave me a headache only twenty minutes in. If you watch this movie in a theater, maybe do it in one with lesser sound qualities than your big-budget multiplex, because the will of some ruthless asshole in the studio is responsible for this ringing in my ears that seems to be growing louder as I type this.

– Weak comedy. If not for the commitment to the craft that Hemsworth gives in shedding his pretty boy persona, the gag material in the film would fail at any and every opportunity possible. The twisted dark humor puns that we’ve come to expect from Men In Black movies are still there, but the line deliveries of conventional comic set-ups land with the kind of power of an ear-hair trimmer, and it fails so bad that it made me forget that this film was ever deemed partly a comedy in the first place. I blame part of this on predictable punchlines, but so much more can be said for limitations felt by its rating that doesn’t test or stretch PG-13 concepts even in the slightest. Don’t go to this movie to laugh, because you’ll be sadly disappointed, and it will only serve as further reminder how terribly this film misses the energetic charm of Will Smith.

– Telegraphed mystery. I figured this out almost immediately after the subplot of a mole in the MIB was introduced to the film, and the film certainly does no favors in making this even remotely climatic for its influence on the rest of the story. Besides the fact that it hardly mentions it again or teases it besides the beginning and end of its mystery, the fact that there are only two lasting characters to the film outside of our central two protagonists (Who it’s obviously not), increases your chances to 50% of getting it right. One of which would be so obvious that it wouldn’t be a mystery at all, so who does it leave? It’s an equation so elementary that a fifth grader could do it on a napkin, and such a disappointment to an aspect of screenplay that should be the enveloping paranoia that is breaking this elusive group apart at the seams.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Directed By Simon Kinberg

Starring – James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner

The Plot – Jean Grey (Turner) begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Female empowerment. Jean Grey in this film isn’t just powerful, but the attention and focus dedicated to her character helps us understand and reason with the film’s antagonist in ways we’re not especially used to in comic book cinema. The film takes Jean and inserts her into these various dynamics with other X-Men characters in a way that establishes her dominance over them, all the while preserving food for thought with regards to other villains that the group has tangled with, over the last four films. In that respect, this is easily the biggest daunting task that the group-turned-family have ever faced, and helps break down barriers created by decades old cliche cinema that females can’t be believable antagonists. For this film, Jean is fierce, seductive, imposing, and most importantly, human, an aspect in character that the film cherishes every bit as much as it does her maniacal gifts of macabre.

– Performances. Every one here is united and still on top of their game, but for my money it was the work of a dazzling trio that firmly kept me invested in the unveiling of this narrative. The first is Michael Fassbender returning as Magneto. No character has fully evolved over the past four films than Fassbender’s jaded antagonist, and his work here preserves that sentiment, as he very much feels like a man who is searching for meaning within his own life, whose tenacity and fire between the eyes is lit when Grey plays a pivotal point in his resurgence. Also great is the addition of Jessica Chastain as a mysterious villain guiding the darker side of Grey’s pulse. Chastain plays completely against type not only in the comic book regards, but also in being a villain who is anything but limited to being just menacing, and her delivery preserves a fine level of believability to what the film asks of her. The best for me (No surprise) is of course Turner, who competently juggles a double side of Jean that allows the audience to notice the differences on their own, thanks in whole to Sophie’s limitless range that is constantly at play. Turner manages to conjure up every ounce of the emotional spectrum, both good and bad, for the character, and her psychological permanence on the audience further outlines the jaded dilemma that constantly fills her psyche with the walls built by others that she is crumbling one by one.

– Underlying commentary. One of my favorite aspects of the X-Men films is their strong current of political and sociological reflections that allow us to take an air of poignancy away from their often times spectacle of a film, and “Dark Phoenix” is certainly no different in this regard. Throughout the film, I viewed Jean Grey as this constant reminder of biological weaponry that grows more dangerous with each day that those in charge further ignore. To feed into this thought, there are obviously two sides fighting for the advantage that this power conveys, all the while an American government on-screen hanging in the balance who now put their faith firmly in the hands of a group of mutants that they once hunted. This series, despite its anything but human characters and traits, has always felt the most in-tuned with the pulse of our own world for the way Stan Lee and many since him have grasped onto the deep environmental issues that plague our everyday spectrum, and it feeds into a continuous reminder of how powerful the world would be if we work together as one unit for one common goal.

– Strong production design. With balance between locations and costume design, this becomes one of the more visually alluring X-Men movies, and does so without preserving a respective decade setting that has often felt like a required gimmick to the previous three films. Instead here, it’s the things we’ve come to love and expect about this series that is front-and-center, and only instills further reminder of how strong this group of extraordinaries have grown together over time. The costumes, especially those of the matching X-Men spacesuits are every bit as vibrant as they are durable to the kind of physical torture they endure. Likewise, the Xavier School For the Gifted feels as expansive as ever thanks in part to this being the first movie where no structural damage takes place there, as well as the litter of youthful exuberance that now adorn its halls, turning the once innagural class of X-Men into the teachers in a sense of life evolution coming full circle.

– Testing limits. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the screenplay was Xavier’s re-appearing arrogance from “First Class”, which cast he and his hubris in new and shape-shifting light for the first time in this series. This is where you can really invest into Grey’s disposition, for the way Charles has taken the hurt in her jumbled past and replaced it with things that only he sees fit, inspiring the student to break free from the shackles that the teacher have locked her in. I’ve always loved McAvoy’s Xavier for this side effect of fame that comes from the inevitability of being a modern day popstar of the public eye, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid of pointing the finger of blame at the mirror towards itself, and as a result we get to indulge on scenes of confrontation between Xavier and Grey, Xavier and Mystique, and Xavier and Hank, the latter of which being my single favorite scene of the entire movie.

NEGATIVES

– No surprises. Thanks to a trailer that not only spoiled every big reveal in the film, but also left so very little in terms of scenic screenplay transformation, we are now left with a movie that leaves so little meat on the bone of revelations that this film so desperately required. This not only took away from a major X-Men death that everyone could now see coming from a mile away, but it also left this film feeling so much more conventional than the previous installments that gave us at least one moment of mind-blowing awesomeness to send us home anticipating the next sequel. Considering this is the final film before Disney introduces the X-Men to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps Kinberg felt none of that was necessary. Either way, “Dark Phoenix” is a telegraphed string of evolving backgrounds that lack anything or surprise or intrigue to sell their impact.

– All around copout. I have to be careful not to spoil here, but considering the film’s title and way it’s marketed around the globe, the third act switch that this movie pulls on its central conflict is one that I found every bit as disappointing as it was inconclusive to what transpired previously. In addition to this, there’s a point in a movie called “Dark Phoenix” where Jean Grey herself becomes a supporting character in her own movie, not only for the lack of lines she receives in the second half of this movie, but also for how the film keeps her contained in ways that the other X-Men never could. Because of this, I can say that the Jean Grey storyline still hasn’t been done to pleasing levels of comic book nerds like me who grew up with its compelling storytelling and vibrancy in illustrations that still hasn’t been touched in terms of depth, in my opinion.

– For his first time behind the director’s chair of a feature length film, there’s much left to be desired about Simon Kinberg’s work on this movie. For one, the photography is horrendous, using a combination of close angles and hollow computer generation that takes out the fun and impact of every action set piece. Beyond this, there are some set pieces that come into focus that serve no purpose to the fight or anything in focus, other than to establish that character could do something powerful. One example of this takes place at a fight in New York City between two sides, and Magneto resurrects a train from underground that does nothing but sit there. He doesn’t hurl it at Jean, he doesn’t ride it to get away from her, nothing. This is expected for a first time director, but in terms of consistency for the rest of the series it is an obvious downgrade, hurting the serious most during the pivotal chapter when all elements of filmmaking should grow as one to match its learning of the craft over the last ten years.

– Convoluted. I appreciate that this is the shortest of X-Men films, clocking in at 108 minutes total, but what’s sacrificed in translation is a smooth and steady pacing of exposition that rarely ever exists in this movie. For my money, “Dark Phoenix” feels like a stitching of two different movies with two different antagonists, that never breathe together as one cohesive unit. Many times throughout the film, the two sides are quite literally sprawling with one another for dominance over the attention of the story, and it does a huge disservice to two compelling story arcs that each deserve a candid amount of time to properly engage the audience in its conflicts. If it were up to me, I would keep this purely as a Jean Grey story, and erase Chastain’s involvement all together. Especially considering this is the final chapter of the series, you have to establish the biggest stakes possible, and because Grey is sacrificed for time in her own movie, the world’s urgency because of her influence never reaches the levels of Apocalypse from the previous film.

– Rating limitations. How could this movie not be rated R? Especially considering how restrained the lumpy dialogue and emphasis in death scenes lack during its entirety. There is one F-bomb in the movie, but it’s said at the most laughably bad delivery throughout the movie, and only further establishes the missed opportunity and raising of the stakes that this movie could’ve established in a film where all bets are off. There’s very little blood, absolutely no gore, and somehow even less believability to a world with a walking timebomb hellbent on destruction and devastation. “Logan” most recently showed us that an R-rating can work smoothly in this world, but because the production behind Fox lacks any kind of fortitude for anything that would limit their purse intake, the material has to suffer by giving us more of the same, and it could’ve taken an already legendary character in the pages, and made her an icon on-screen.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Perfection

Directed By Richard Shepard

Starring – Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber

The Plot – When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.

Rated R for scenes of brutal violence, adult language, and sexual situations involving nudity.

POSITIVES

– Uniqueness in characters and storytelling. This is a film that is obvious in how everything surrounding it plays to the plot twists, which shake up the direction and character arcs every twenty minutes or so, to keep it from being overly predictable. While no one person in this movie is entirely admirable for who they eventually become, the screenplay feels human in the perspective that the people involved are anything but cookie-cutter, and reflect the idea that society isn’t filled with a barrage of good or evil, but rather a majority of grey somewhere in between. This better helped overcome some of the flaws in minimal character exposition that plagued the film, but also gave way to exposing an interior psychological pulse outside, and constantly reminds us of the damage associated with abuse, in these characters becoming a mere shell of who they once were because of such.

– Gore for days. If you’re like me and appreciate a raining bloodbath of a movie throughout, “The Perfection” will stimulate you ruthlessly for how over-the-top it manages to escalate. This is a Netflix first film, so there are no barriers to the kinds of things the brutality can achieve, and it leads to a series of gashes and gross-out gags that are easily some of the most memorable of the last decade of horror cinema, if only for how the ferocity strikes at the surface of your skin for what we the audience can feel. What’s commendable here is that the editing remains restrained during these pivotal scenes, so as not diminish the attention needed to sell their appalling circumstance, and it reminded me of a bygone era of filmmaking where practicality blood over computer generated splashed with artistic merit, that wasn’t afraid to show its true colors to convey a message of high stakes splash. It’s a bit exploitative, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun for the extreme nature of its depiction.

– Mengege a trois of performances. The three faces that I mentioned above really dominate the spectrum here, and get so lost in the sinister details of their character’s that they constantly adapt to. For my money, Williams is the star pupil, as her combination of subtle unnerving demeanor and hole-burning stare made me feel a determination in her character, who will stop at nothing to attain what she seeks. Likewise, Browning really opened my eyes physically for how she contorts and dedicates her body to mastering this level of vulnerability that made you emphasize with her character, and brought believability to the kinds of things she was enduring. But man oh man, Steven Weber, where have you been? I remember this guy killing it in many films during the 90’s, but his role here as a seedy musical teacher might be his very best to date. Weber’s calculated, brash deposits make him the most important character of the film, and prove that the concepts of obsession don’t just resonate with the unhealthy determination of students, but also in the teacher who paints the environment that the poison emits from.

– Speaking of obsession, the film feels like a hybrid combination of 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2006’s “Black Swan”, for how it centers on this unhealthy objective to be the best in a particular field. Where “The Perfection” sets itself apart from the competition however, is in the underlying social issue burning deep in the modern day ‘Me Too’ world, that fights back with no shortage of expressive exchanges or unabashed vengeance that really made this feel like a fantastical retort in the way it’s presented. In this respect, the female side of moviegoers will definitely get more out of this than the opposition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because the way I see it, “The Perfection” is one of those socially reflective films that demands change from the world that inspires it, and it gives the film a positive message of bravery deep beneath a series of gut-wrenching blows and buckets of blood that really triggers an uplifting level of positivity for reflective filmmaking.

– The setting. I love that this film takes place overseas, because it gives the character’s a level of isolation and vulnerability for being in a land where they feel so void of friends or family to turn to when the shit hits eventually hits the fan. There’s this ominous cloud that fills the room not only with Asia as a whole, but also in this musical academy that accommodates the legion of upper class suits, and these initial shots that introduce us and engage upon the atmosphere are certainly the articulate tool used to measure that everything seen in these classy visuals and elegant lighting scheme are the expected to what’s really unexpected lurking beneath the surface level of soft smiles hiding sinister surroundings. What we’ve come to expect in horror film settings has become a cliche in itself, but the stages that this play takes place on gives an eye-opening approach to what has rarely ever been considered terrifying, and in turn gives food for thought on the ideal of the dirty deeds that take place in a house with a white picket fence.

– Evolving direction. This is the aspect of the film that I felt was so much more unpredictable than the plot twists themselves, as the first act of the movie feels very in-tuned as a seduction thriller, and one that feels provocative with enough tantalizing sexual mystique that lures you in to the lucid body language involved in the two protagonists. The second act eventually evolves into a bodily horror narrative, that will visually test your stomach in ways the provide emphasis for the dramatic tonal shift delivered in this film, but one that you can bet certainly won’t be the last. We settle down in the final act of the movie with an all out slasher tempo that confronts the growing conflict of this movie head-on, all the while preserving the bond of the first two acts that mold into a Frankenstein-fused finale that is every bit as consequential as it is poetic for the ringing social metaphorical power of the impactful final shot.

NEGATIVES

– Plot conveniences. One of the overwhelming aspects of this film to me was the lack of subtlety and overall convenience in storytelling details that so much of the twists rely on. In this respect, nothing in the film feels authentic or believable in terms of the way people interact, or in the way that certain elements are discovered to the knowledge of character’s. One such example happens within the first five minutes of the movie, when Williams’ character is on the phone looking for Browning, and POP!!! a billboard appears at that exact moment that shows she is a major hit in town. More examples could be given, but it would spoil what leads up to the first major twist in the movie. What I will say is that it pushes the boundaries of what could be measured and planned by any logical human being, and only stretches what we as answer seekers can firmly understand in tying loose ends together.

– Boisterous musical score. To say that the musical tones and audible soundtrack for the movie was distracting and invasive is an understatement. Not only is its ear-piercing volume a jarring distraction each time it’s included, but it constantly oversteps its boundaries on letting the dramatic elements of the moment play out without delivering some overly-obvious measure of audience interpretation that the composer feels we couldn’t have garnered without them. This isn’t even the worst audio measure of the film, as a last second rap track included feels so far out of place within the confines and audible tastes in the film that I couldn’t escape cringing for how over-the-top and spoon-fed it feels in the context of the scene it exists in. It was at this point in the film where I gave up all hope of musical nuance that usually immerses itself into a scene, but instead here is one step away from being presented louder than the attention of the actors themselves. Truly dreadful.

– Problems with twists. I was able to properly fetch out two of the film’s three plot twists for reasons I will explain later, but aside from this, I felt that the film gave the audience no capability in figuring things out for themselves because of the manipulative level of storytelling that limited our chances in the first place. Each time something new is revealed to the audience, the scene will halt progress, then jarringly rewind in a way that tells me someone has been watching “Funny Games” a time or two recently, depositing something that wasn’t even in the scene to begin with. My problem with this is two-fold. The first, is that the initial narrative isn’t taking place from any one particular character’s point-of-view, so we should see everything that transpires in real time because we the audience play the environment in this scene. The second is that the twists get sillier with each one that develops, further soiling the sharpness of the film’s beautifully documented brutality, that reaches levels of cartoonish exposition by the end of the film.

– Photography. This is where I picked up on the first twist, thanks in part to a particular frame that focused far too long on an otherwise unimportant object. Ignoring this obvious measure of visual storytelling, the film’s shot selection also suffers from an overly-inflated influence of Hitchcock inspired shots that lack a level of consistency for their involvement in this film. Distracting first act shots that involve a camera placement on an unorthodox object or even actor that doesn’t fit with the sum of its parts. On the latter of that statement, a last act struggle for power is shown from Williams point-of-view in a manner similar to MTV’s throwback show “Fear”, and unfortunately it misses out on the details of the fight, as well as the dramatic tension that never materializes because we have to fill in the blanks of what transpired away from our curious eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

The Lion King (1994)

Directed By Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring – Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Plot – A young lion prince (Broderick) is cast out of his pride by his cruel uncle (Irons), who claims he killed his father (Jones). While the uncle rules with an iron paw, the prince grows up beyond the Savannah, living by a philosophy: No worries for the rest of your days. But when his past comes to haunt him, the young prince must decide his fate: Will he remain an outcast or face his demons and become what he needs to be?

Rated G

POSITIVES

– G-rating. What astonishes me about this film is that it was one of the last non-documentary cinematic releases to be stamped with the rare G-rating, that is often times looked at as a statue of limitations, but here is executed brilliantly to never hinder or demean the film’s potential in material. Aside from the scenes of war and loss coming across as emotionally effective despite showing so very little to us the audience, the themes in the script mature at the rate of speed that its central protagonist does, transitioning us into a third act where the urgency of the film is very in-tuned to the pulse of the unraveling narrative, eventually building to a high-stakes final conflict that has immense consequences that are tastefully carried out. G-rated films in 2019 are as dry as paper, but in 1994 there was an animated movie that touched on the concepts of love, loss, evolution, and jealousy fruitfully, and it’s one that resonates loudly twenty-five years later as the film that didn’t abide by a letter grade.

– Memorable soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Elton John on the same compilation? Phenomenal. The work done by these two masterminds of music led to a collection of timeless hits and infectious energy that can only be ignored by the heartless, and led to one of the highest grossing soundtracks in cinema history. Not only are the songs reflective of the storytelling beats, not only are they thunderous in the way that everything in frame plays into the heart of the performance, but they also transpire seamlessly at the perfect opportune time at each moment of the changing dynamic to not violently halt the storytelling. Some of my personal favorites are “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the terribly underrated “Be Prepared”. Not to be outdone by lyrical tracks, however, Zimmer manufactures a presence of the Pride Lands of Africa that constantly persists throughout 83 minutes of brief screen time, outlining an original flavor of geography for the time that better allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the heat of the environment, perfecting every angle of the setting gimmick that gives it consistent weight throughout the film.

– Unmatched cast. This film is easily the winner for best animated ensemble of all time for me, not just for the prestigious names involved with the picture, but also for the highly transformative vocal work that makes it increasingly difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles. In that respect, Jones, Broderick, and especially Irons do such a tremendous job that it often feels like their vocal range is emoting to the movement of the animation, and never vice versa, and it’s that aspect that brings out extreme believability with their influence to the character’s. For Jones, it’s a combination of brawn and heart that etch out the ultimate protector not only for Simba, but for his entire kingdom that depends on him. The tag-team work of teen dream Jonathan Taylor-Thomas and Broderick conjure up a believable transfer of character in Simba that echo the ideals of childhood and adulthood respectively, and make the transformation gel smoothly for a character who grows in size and responsibility before our very eyes. Irons is the true M.V.P for me however, as Scar, the jaded uncle antagonist with a thirst for power that knows no boundaries. Irons chews up an abundance of scenery with his arrogantly sarcastic personality, never hiding for a second the hatred he harvests for those who wear the crown that he deems should rightfully be his, and it’s a conflict that is not only easy to understand in that aspect, but also one that hinders on one of the seven deadly sins (Greed) that echo the devilish demeanor of such a dangerous antagonist.

– Extremely quotable. The dialogue in the film feels as sharp as a dagger, and a lot of that has to do with screenwriters Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi’s to channel the roller-coaster of emotional vulnerability that keeps it from persistently remaining in one particular genre of material, giving audiences the right level of change at the perfectly precise moment. One example of this is after Mufasa’s untimely death, which is followed by the introduction of Timon and Pumba, leading to the proper amount of comic relief after the single biggest gut-punch of the movie. These two character’s are responsible for many spirited one-liners that have become philosophies of die-hard Disney fans for generations of past, present, and future, but none bigger than Hakuna Matata, the mantra of living without worries. It feels like the perfect branch to Que Sera Sera, and adds importance to a second act that could easily trail off without that proper execution of mood change that I mentioned previously that values the fun in a screenplay as much as it does the dramatic elements.

– Fluid screenplay. What works to the benefit of the movie’s pacing is its ability to pack so much into an 83 minute run time, yet never feel limited by the tiers in the narrative that it constantly touches on. This is a film that continues to march forward, even during the scenes of dramatic mourning that likely made audiences feel like a necessary cool down period. The movie’s notorious death sequence happens with a measly 46 minutes left in the film, choosing to build the relationship between father, son, and the kingdom in depth up to this point, all the while telegraphing the moves of the board for the opposition that awaits him. It feels like we’re seeing each side, good and bad, every step of the way, leading to that previously mentioned confrontation that doesn’t disappoint for heartstring tugging or permanence within a usually light-hearted kids atmosphere. Beyond this, the second and beginning of third acts construct a crossroads for Simba’s past and present, bringing a balance of emphatic reunions and maturity to the protagonist that proves his fate for the throne. When all is said and done, there are 13 minutes left for the showdown between uncle and nephew, and while not the longest or most elaborate in terms of fight choreography, does excel in audience vulnerability for how many of the battle beats strike a familiar chord with the second act fight that took the life of the original king. This film is constantly engaging, and never lags or distracts from the material for a single solitary second.

– The perfect antagonist. Part of what allures you to Scar as an endearing villain is in the way Irons emotes him, but beyond that it’s the way that his actions capture the entire spectrum of devilish deeds, otherwise known as the seven deadly sins. He believes himself to be deserving of power. He also refuses to abandon the Pride Lands, even if it means the death of his subjects (Pride). He acts indolent even as the Pride Lands fall into ruin. (Sloth) He enjoys food while letting the rest of his kingdom, including his loyal followers, starve (Gluttony). He is envious of his brother and nephew for getting the throne, and plots their deaths for it (Envy). In a deleted scene, he comes onto Nala, eager to produce heirs(Lust). He wants power and will destroy anyone to get it. (Greed) He gets enraged when Mufasa is mentioned to him, and he attacks Sarabi for comparing him unfavorably to Mufasa (Wrath). Most Disney antagonists have at least one redeeming quality about them that hints at an air of conscience persisting deep down, but Scar is an empty shell of a man so deceitfully sinister that he gladly sacrifices family if it means attaining the things he wants, a first for Disney antagonists at this point, that was later followed by Hades in in 1997’s “Hercules”.

– Aged well animation. Despite the lack of depth and detail associated with the backgrounds in some tight character angles of framing, the vibrancy in illustrations of animals and environment in the foreground generates a level of artistic merit that I’d easily put up against 80% of today’s animated advancements. Slow motion effects, expansive facial expression resonation, and no shortage of high intensity framing movements gives the film a maturity well beyond its years in terms of capabilities, and really stood as the measuring stick for animated feature length films well before the dawn of Disney Pixar. In addition to this, the haze cinematography is just enough of a presence in each frame without taking too much away from the vibrancy in production design that radiates with the influence of sunbaked scenery. This is a film that gets most of its attention for music and screenplay, and not quite enough for the luster of the lens that immediately captures your attention high atop a cliff during life’s sweetest celebration. In that perspective, “The Lion King” isn’t just a film, but an admiration for all things life, love, and family, and the poetic imagery of visual transfixion does wonders in relaying to the audience the things in life that are most important.

– Modern day Shakespaere. Part of what makes “The Lion King” so compelling and rich in its hierarchy setting is that it’s positively derived from arguably William Shakespeare’s biggest work of literature. Don’t believe me? Lets examine. Simba, like Hamlet, is the king in grooming, both feature an uncle who is eager to kill their nephew for the benefit of gaining the throne, Timon and Pumba easily echo the same comedy-instilled sidekicks that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do for Hamlet, both Simba and Hamlet are driven by the ghosts of their fathers appearing to them in a vision, and the overbearing similarities of graveyards in each story, which involve jokester antagonists like the gravediggers (Hamlet) and the hyenas (The Lion King). Calling this a coincidence is a bit of a stretch, but even so, there’s no denying that Disney beautifully blends the worlds of stage and safari seamlessly, making for a screenplay that proves that great literature is immortal when redesigned to accommodate the era that borrows it.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of female influence. Between Nala and Sarabi, I couldn’t escape this overwhelming presence that female character’s simply don’t apply as much as a necessary influence to the dynamic of the film, and more than not serve as virtual arm candy for the happenings around their male counterparts. Nala receives screen time, but when you consider that there’s never a scene of lone reflection for her that doesn’t involve Simba in the very same scene, you start to conjure up feelings that the story isn’t interested in what she lost that fateful day. Likewise, Sarabi, Simba’s mother, goes missing for ample amounts of time after scenes that rightfully should include her, if only to document her reaction to immense loss. She has a few scenes, but what’s most concerning is that the film never answers if she is still the queen of the land after her husband’s untimely passing, and more than this why she isn’t at the crowning ceremony during the film’s closing shot.

– A tragic misstep. This is all personal opinion, but I feel like Mufasa died in the wrong scene during the movie. He is ambushed by a herd of wild animals, the trio of hyenas, and of course his own brother Scar, at the height of a casual day of training between father and son. This does very little for Simba in terms of emotional tug, because even though he lost his father to disgusting circumstances, it happens during a scene where Simba is obeying the royal parental unit, thus nothing of substance to regret about that fateful day. Now imagine if the death actually took place in the bone graveyard scene instead, during a defiance of his father, which would then lead him to lose the person who matters the most to him. The weight of his immature decision would weigh even heavier on the conscience of the boy, thus outlining a much stronger character arc and internal conflict for him to overcome in the way of adversity. The finished product death scene is fine, but a conflicted protagonist always feels leagues more relatable to the audience, and could’ve practically doubled the dramatic heft of the passing, that would only further enhance Simba’s distancing from the place he once called home.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Ma

Directed By Tate Taylor

Starring – Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis

The Plot – In this new psychological horror-thriller from Tate Taylor and Blumhouse, a lonely woman (Spencer) befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.

Rated R for violent/disturbing material, adult language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use

 

POSITIVES

– High Octavia. While the rest of the performances mostly by the teenage cast don’t live up to anything outside of the conventional box of adolescent youth, the work by the film’s central antagonist is treading new ground for the decades of experience that the Academy Award winner has gained. Spencer’s Ma channels just enough loneliness to make you feel for her character, yet equally enough maniacal mange to remember why some people are better left alone in the first place. Octavia’s commitment to giving this character the proper amount of energy and growing disappearance of nuance sanity proves she is having the time of her life with the role, and that raw precision to insanity makes her especially engaging for the audience, especially being one of the only female black psychopaths on-screen in movie history. Side note- Screw Mark Wahlberg, I want to listen to Octavia talk to animals for the rest of my life. Seriously the funniest shit I’ve ever heard.

– Tuned-in tone. One thing that Blumhouse usually manages to attain more times than not is this perfect compromise of tone and seriousness for the movie that gives their films a hip edge with younger moviegoing audiences. Continuing this tradition is “Ma”, a film not afraid to show its personality with timely awkward laughs, or a barrage of thrills that articulately depicts the evolution of the script. This is very much a film that I had a lot of fun with, but one that also surprised me for how much emphasis is given to the coveted R-rating that often times feels like a reason to get extreme for the sake of shock violence. This one instead takes its time, and does so while solidifying an indulging atmosphere that allows you to forget about the cares of the world for 90 minutes of calculated revenge that constantly pokes and prods at the audience that it knows so well.

– Double tiered storytelling. Aside from the real time narrative that much of the movie’s attention is dedicated to, there is an addition subplot that occasionally appears detailing Ma’s mysterious past, giving us insight for why she is the way she is. As to where this cliche of explaining too much about the mystery usually soils the mystique of the character for me, this angle provides blocks of knowledge not only for why there’s something truly unsettling beneath her exterior of super hip elder, but also why much of her manneurisms and reactions envelope the teenager inside of her that has never evolved or moved past the demons of her past. What’s important is that it doesn’t effect the attention of its audience, nor does it make this timeline transition too often to take away from the current day progression. It’s a seamless delve into the mind of a mad woman, who for better or worse, provides possible justification for what she has become, and it gives the film two compelling stories for the price of one.

– Kicking tunes. What’s so refreshingly engaging about this soundtrack and accompanying musical score, is that the collection of top 40 classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s that Blumhouse surprisingly shelled out a big amount for transcends the screen, and puts us the audience front-and-center at the heart of a party full of drunken debauchery and endless good times. Some of the featured tunes include “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, and my personal favorite for Ma’s one-of-a-kind robotic dance choreography that she gives during it, “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. As for the musical score by composer Gregory Tripi, it’s a lucid anxiety-riddled ravage of synth sounds that adds a trancing outline to the scenes of tension that sharpen with increasing volume until they are ready to cut like a knife. Music was the last thing I was expecting to compliment in a movie this focused on revenge narratives, but the inclusion of a toe-tapping tapestry of terror only increased my delight of this picture, and put me in the moment of living out these awkward moments with these young characters.

– Taylor’s presence behind the lens. This is the same guy who directed visual feasts of coloring like “The Help” and “Winter’s Bone”, but it’s really what Tate does in framing work that gives way to an artistic integrity of range, that pokes and prods the audience with efficiency. The way this guy is able to tease with mirror images on a wall, or shadows in the background of a scene that show someone’s coming, or even the way he uses flash-edited close-ups of his leading lady to garner that heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach, amplifies the tension because of calculated shot photography, and gives a stylized beat of precision for the movements of the camera that are often swift and full of pulse. For a Blumhouse produced movie, this is exceptional to say the least, and Taylor’s personality of visual storytelling masters a command over the film that would be overlooked for importance in lesser hands.

– Third act switch. What’s particularly surprising about this film is that it goes nearly 70 minutes without showing a single drop of blood, reserving itself for the moment when its impact will be heard the loudest, and boy does this ever materialize during the final twenty-five minutes of the film. To say this film matures into material that solidifies its R-rating is putting it lightly. The combination of brutal violence, shocking nudity, and devilish details mirror that of Ma’s diminishing grip over that growing voice inside of her head that she can’t escape any longer, and it made for some impressive scenes of character resolution that made me laugh and shriek in terror at the same time. Are these artistically respectable death scenes? Absolutely not, but the placement of their gore is something that infuses it that much more with attention, and will have audiences wondering frequently if they really just saw what they think they did.

– Poetic final shot. Many people will have problems with the ending of this film, for feeling anti-climatic, but to me the imagery of the fading moments from this film felt every bit as conclusively satisfying as they did honorable by Taylor to not tease an unnecessary sequel. Short, sweet, and right to the point with some poignancy to tie everything together. The work goes more into the artistic side of it rather than the reactive one, and it’s especially rare in modern day where you get a movie where the end is literally that; the end.

NEGATIVES

– Shows cards too often. This is especially heavy on the mystery and plot twist of the movie, that the revealing trailers have already done a great job of revealing prematurely. In the film itself, the movie makes a couple major mistakes on its way to selling what Ma herself is hiding, and it’s something that I was able to figure out within the opening ten minutes of this movie (No kidding) for the way a character reveal in the background makes them look like an obvious character within this movie. In addition to this, the script does nothing to dress this aspect up as something totally different than what it actually is, and it left much of the film’s second half for me a delayed relay, where the movie was catching up to me in terms of exposition that was often stilted. The meandering on random objects that easily don’t tie into the scene was also a glaring red flag for me, giving off a not so secretive vibe that something bigger was coming with this focus that came completely out of left field.

– On-the-nose dialogue. Easily the weakest aspect of the film for me, as the lines read by the younger cast completely reek of older influence trying to be hip, and instead just come off as completely unnatural line reads that feel force-fed. These created a series of unintentional laughs and groans from me that certainly didn’t lack volume in the auditorium, and did no favors to some first time starring roles that completely lacked believability or immersion into their respective roles. I could give examples, but I want this element of the film out of my head as soon as possible, for how truly gratifying it was on my precious ears.

– Rushed pacing. It’s no surprise that this film is a light, fluffy sit in terms of its minimal time commitment, but the jarring contradiction of actions from character’s between scenes rendered the continuity virtually pointless, and made for some actions of character that felt completely illogical for what they’d already been through at that point. One such example points to a negative cell phone video made by a teen within our group of protagonists, who sent it to everyone (Ma included), telling them to stay away from Ma’s, yet magically appears at that very spot in the very next scene of the movie. It’s possible that there are additional scenes missing that tie moments like this together, but I can only grade the paper that is left on my desk, and a lot of these transition scenes are disjointed to say the least.

My Grade: 7/10 of B-

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Directed By Michael Dougherty

Starring – Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler

The Plot – The new story follows the heroic efforts of the cryptozoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three headed King Ghidorah. When these ancient superspecies, thought to be mere myths, rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity’s very existence hanging in the balance.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some adult language

POSITIVES

– Articulate computer generation. All of your favorite Toho monsters return to the silver screen, and are each given an upgrade in rendering that brings out the true diversity and grand scale in each character design. Godzilla is not only as big as he’s ever been in size and strength, but the rough texture that tells the stories of the various wars he has been through, compliments the gigantic lizard in ways that immediately capture your attention and intimidation of him in all of his god-like presence. In addition to this, most of the movie is computer generation, and what worried me about that initially was the loss of weight being diminished in artificiality, but thankfully the devastation feels every bit as thunderous as it does expansive, giving us the same kind of colossal damage that we all grew up loving, for half of the price and physical labor going into making and destroying live action sets. It gives the events in the film an air of permanence on a global scale that logically will make this easily the most difficult to clean up from of all of the Godzilla franchise.

– Bear with me. Music composer Bear McCreery steals our audible attention seamlessly with a scintillating musical score that pays tribute to classic Godzilla chords, all the while distorting the music in a way that creates something completely fresh and unique from the ages old piece. Godzilla’s main theme is of course heard a couple of times throughout the film, but it’s after those initial familiar intro notes where the track evolves to paying homage to the art in motion that we are seeing displayed before our very eyes. McCreery manages to capture the true wonderment and astonishing nature of the character, echoing his invasion to these scenes with operatic levels of volume that practically forces audience members to the edge of their seats for the brutality that is sure to follow. Also intriguing is a collaboration that Bear has with System of a Down front-man Serj Tankian, in covering the classic Blue Oyster Cult stadium anthem “Godzilla” for post movie credit sequence. In total, the music plays a pivotal role in amplifying the tension and drama of the moment, and establishes an influence by Bear that is every bit as immense as the movie’s title protagonist.

– A surprise behind every corner. I knew of the first three or four celebrities who were in this film, but I had quite literally no idea the depth of big name personalities that make up one of the best collective ensembles in a disaster movie ever. What’s gratifying is that none of them are a temporary cameo, sticking around for the entirety of the movie to give this installment a higher value of caliber than we’re rightfully used to from this otherwise hokey franchise. I will choose not to spoil any of the names, but for my money the supporting cast is what kept me constantly intrigued into the movie, and the main character’s dominance of the screenplay did them zero favors in gaining popularity the longer you spend with them, and it’s nice to know that Godzilla’s timeless influence rings true for even some of Hollywood’s most elite actors and actresses, as they simply can’t turn down a chance to act in infamy.

NEGATIVES

– Same shit, different day. The very same problem that I had in 2014’s “Godzilla” exists in this sequel, but made even worse for the longer run time that completely fries the pacing with its choices in direction. Once again, this is Godzilla’s movie, but humans and unlimited long-winded series of exposition scenes make up roughly 90% of its 127 minute run time, complicating a film so easy to construct that even the trailers did it for them. When I say that I didn’t like the human character’s in this movie, I’m not embellishing slightly. They are every bit as stupid in their actions as they are deceitful in their morals, and being forced to spend scene after scene with each of them became increasingly frustrating when all I wanted to see what exciting monster collisions with carnage chaos to spread. We are told during the film that there are 17 monsters scattered all across the globe, but because Godzilla becomes a supporting character in his own movie, we really only passionately follow four of those monsters in the foreground, and it’s a humiliating missed opportunity for all of the hardcore fans of the series to see their favorite character with a modern rendering.

– Too much humor. The dialogue in this film isn’t just meandering, it’s down right humiliating in regards to how it chops the urgency and seriousness of the situation each time a character opens their mouths to say something cute. The only other Godzilla film that I can compare this stance to is 1998’s “Godzilla”, a failure on nearly every aspect of technical filmmaking that many fans have chosen to forget its existence. You can’t tell me this banter is any different, as the commentary coming from this crew of class clowns feels a bit too protected in their ivory towers to truly soak in the tragedy that exists on the ground, reminding me of those 2000’s VH1 shows, where a bunch of comedians are brought in to tell jokes towards an internet video playing in real time. Not only did I find this direction counterfeit of the story taking place around it, but it also felt childish for the very laughs that the lines reach for in some truly hideous deliveries, that feel so out of place to the previous film’s serious demeanor.

– Disgusting cinematography. Another continued problem from the first film are these darkly colored, shaky-cam frames that make it so difficult to focus firmly on any of the fight choreography transpiring. With the exception of the movie’s final battle, the previous three are a smoke-filled, never-ending rainout of cluttered catastrophe, that often make it feel like you’re riding Godzilla’s back for how chaotic everything appears. The shakey-camera effect was fine in 1998, when “Saving Private Ryan” perfected it in a way that took nothing away from what registered, but in 2019 imitators are still conjuring up new ways to make you run to the bathroom in motion sickness delirium. At least the finale fight pulls back a hair in its otherwise tightly claustrophobic angles, but the damage of character building physical exposition for a new generation is done, soiling in the process anything of rarity or uniqueness about these monsters to make them stand out.

– Stupid story. This is typical for Godzilla movies, but I can’t give a pass to a world existing beyond the screen where I’m smarter than every single character that exists in it. SPOILERS YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. The main idea behind unleashing these monsters is that one character believes they will fix the problems caused by humans. BY KILLING THEM ALL? How will we be around to reap the benefits of this reward? Beyond this, problems with logic involved an electronic machine getting drenched in rain, yet not malfunctioning at the very least, a barrage of particles flying at a group of characters, where not one rock or wooden board hits them anywhere on the body, a child being able to access government run operations and programs, and suits being worn by some characters because of the radiation being distributed into the air, yet others going as far as touching said creature without even a raincoat on. I get that these movies are stupid goodness that you turn your brain off and watch, but when a film is trying to be overly preachy about the real problems we face in our own real world, it’s difficult for me to afford it the courtesy of being naive when the movie asks for it. You built a world reflective of our own, so you simply can’t overlook the tremendous holes of logic in the way your story plays out.

– Contradicting directions. It’s hard to decide what kind of tone Dougherty seeks to attain in the film when aspects of the script don’t mesh well with others in creating one cohesive narrative. As I mentioned earlier, there is an overwhelming amount of humor from the dialogue, yet a serious attention given to the trio of performances by Chandler, Farmiga, and Brown. There’s an attentive focus to political commentary on humans being the real monsters, yet a story driven narrative that is painfully contained and limited because it begins and ends because of one family’s stupid decisions. This is a film creatively that is experiencing an identity crisis, thanks in part to five different screenwriters having a hand in its fate feeling like five different directions, and if it managed to settle down and establish a layer of consistency for longer than three scenes, the accomplishment of a continuous pace of tone would feel concrete, but “King of the Monsters” endlessly searches for a direction that it never comfortably finds, and takes so much away from the weight of what’s on the line in so much tragedy.

– Lack of character. The consequences of bare minimum character exposition and a total lack of family interaction throughout shows through the seams here, and the result is a collection of people who we the audience find great difficulty in grabbing onto, especially considering the thoughtless, selfish decisions that they are making for the rest of us. For my money, I could’ve accepted losing any of these characters, and it not having one ounce of heft on my conscience towards the story, and that’s a problem when you’re thrusting these humans in a situation so unlike anything that they’ve ever experienced before, and asking us the audience to invest in them because big bad monsters are everywhere. Godzilla is in this movie maybe a collective twenty minutes, and I cared more for him when he suffered pain of any kind. He’s a computer generated lizard who is a constant danger to anyone beneath him. Yep, that’s the kind of fleshing out that we get in this film.

– Messy editing. Mainly on the value of continuity in scene-to-scene transition, the film fumbles in cohesive visual storytelling, that otherwise makes for unintentionally humorous scenes of shattered continuity that prove more directing incompetence. There are scenes of Brown’s hair being tied one second, and down in the next, scenes where character’s magically transport from one part of a ship to the other in the next frame, and an overall consistency in splicing that feels far too intrusive at all of the wrong moments. The fight scenes in a particular have far too many cuts, especially considering this is the Godzilla franchise, a series known for its long takes of choreography during fight sequences. The post production on this film is underwhelming to say the least, and proves that no care went into the consistency of the film, for which there is none with regards to gaining momentum to carry over the pacing of the film’s two hour plus run time.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

The Dead Don’t Die

Directed By Jim Jarmusch

Starring – Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Danny Glover

The Plot – The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for adult language

POSITIVES

– Entrancing musical score. Jarmusch pulls double duty here, as he and partner Chris Logan (Together known as Squrl) infuse an unnerving presence of moody blues rock to perfectly accentuate the trouble that is persistently brewing beneath this small town, all appropriately narrated by the king of blues rock himself, Tom Waits. Especially obvious is the ominously thick influence of organ music that gives the film the occasional serious tone that it requires so terribly to sell its scares, bringing forth a collection of groovy tunes from a soundtrack that I will inevitably buy with much eagerness to audibly treat myself again. On top of this, the film’s title track, “The Dead Don’t Die” from Sturgill Simpson, has so much more than a topical presence in the film. It’s very much the tie that binds these many off-beat personalities together for one night of chaotic bloody thrills. Jarmusch himself has musical ties all the way back to his days in high school, so it’s nice to see that he believes he doesn’t have to give up one passion for the sake of another, and as it stands, it’s easily the greatest aspect of any in his zom-com.

– Make-up/prosthetics. Not only are the effects work in the film durable for such a cheap production budget overall, but they also spare no details in the gory fashion of some truly cringing death sequences by the hungry undead. What I love about these instances is that they stand as the constant reminder of consequences existing in a world so heavily influenced by dark humor. What’s equally effective is that the graphic depictions never overstay or over-influence the 100 minute screenplay, instead being used sporadically to enhance their appearances at just the right time in impact. In this respect, Jarmusch values their purpose, but chooses to not takeaway from the artistic merit of the film, so as not to turn this into an unnecessary exploitation film that most zombie movies run towards.

– Respect for the genre. A right of passage in zombie movies is to respectfully homage or audibly mention the greats that came before it, educating youthful audiences in a way that seems necessary with the overabundance of undead properties that even in 2019 are still all the craze. Sequences with zombies invasions are given the George Romero style of cinematography, in that they take ample time to capture the very shock factor of the dead walking the Earth again, for the sheer importance of how this changes everything in the setting. Likewise, the film’s various mentions of Romero, his films like “Dawn of the Dead”, or the glaringly obvious homage to “Return of the Living Dead”, with these zombies muttering one word comments like “Coffee” or “Chardonnay” to whet their thirsts. It proves that Jarmusch has done his homework, and has great respect for the genre classics that blazed a trail so wide that we now have no shortage of zombie television shows on mainstream TV.

– An Ohio boy. For those who don’t know, Jarmusch was once a native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and like many other famous world pop culture icons like The Black Keys, Chrissy Hynde, or Lebron James, Jim cherishes his roots and takes pride in fusing them in to every film he heads, and “The Dead Don’t Die” is certainly no different. For one, the film takes place in Centerville, a real life suburb of Dayton, garnering around 24,000 people within its beautiful city limits. Beyond this, the articulate rendering of small town talk and demeanor’s are captured in a way that only people from the area will truly connect and take connection to, preserving an inside joke that I constantly felt like I was the only one in on. Finally, the mention and fun-poking at the expense of the city of Pittsburgh is something that surely burns on for a native Ohioan who has spent decades being on the humiliating side of comparison to said big city. In many ways, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a reminder of Jim’s ability to never forget who he is or where he came from, and the way he incorporates such a pride into his latest big screen presentation gave me a bountiful amount of pride and conscience for my home that too many simply don’t value.

– Riveting social commentary. Any good zombie film requires something extra simmering just beneath the barrage of blood and brains that reach the surface level, and Jarmusch’s latest proves that he has a lot to talk about in the current Trump landscape. While not feeling overly preachy or disjointed in its boiling issues, the unshakeable combination of immigration, consequential fracking, stock in fake news, and of course an unmistakeable red hat that reads “Make America White Again” does more than enough to register where Jim stands on the debates of the modern day that clearly hit home for this visionary. The sheer creativity associated with how Jim works in these themes to something as polarly opposite as a zombie epidemic is beautifully stitched, and does wonders in depicting a world, that while visually may look so far from those watching, does in fact hit a soft spot for how synonymous their conflicts collide with ours.

NEGATIVES

– Very few laughs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the movie, as Jarmusch’s usually dark twisted depravity is something I’ve taken strong merit with in his films like “Paterson” or “Only Lovers Left Alive”, is the overwhelming lack of accuracy or consistency in laughs that drain so much of the fun from the picture. The gags here are every bit as telegraphed as they are lazy, and especially with a phenomenal cast that includes the iconic Bill Murray, it’s shocking that so much of the humor involved is one-note, never evolving from the precedent set during the first act that frankly wasn’t convincing to begin with. Did I laugh a few times? Sure, but the film’s biggest obstacle is that so much of the screenplay lacks quotability with audiences who will inevitably give it more than one spin in their DVD player, and coming back with fewer scenes of reward for their funny bones each time. Considering the film is marketed as a comedy first, it’s discouraging that Jarmusch hangs much of his hat on the presence of big name actors to sell lines of dialogue that sound like they originate from a Noah Baumbach movie.

– Sequencing repetition. This film could easily be an even 90 minutes, and lose nothing from the edit of redundancy that overwhelms the set-ups in each scene. For instance, when a character is killed, the three cops will each experience seeing the dead boy. That’s fine enough for a realistic perspective, but what’s troubling is nothing about their reactions is different enough to cement reasoning for why we have to relive the same scene for as many as three different times back-to-back. This isn’t a one and done kind of thing either. I counted three different scenes during the film where this happens, and it’s increasingly more frustrating by that final time because it’s a mistake that translates tragically for the pacing of his film, giving audiences a steep uphill climb in the first half of the movie, if they want to reap the rewards of the zombie euphoria of the second half that they’ve waited patiently for.

– Jarmusch’s directing. As an Akron boy, this more than anything troubles me, because Jim has proven that he’s an incredible actor time and time again, but with this film he doesn’t understand the value of urgency in a post-apocalyptic script. Part of this is the bored environments that Jim himself intentionally creates in his films that are dry of thrills or cinematic revelations to keep the audience hooked. If you don’t get lost in the thickness of the dialogue and diverse conversations in the film, this will be a rough sit. One such troubling direction is the frequent breaking of meta for the audience that is supposed to come off as smart, but just kind of demeans everything set-up before it. Throughout the film, cast members mention reading a script, or Sturgill Simpson’s previously mentioned track being the theme song for the film, or Driver’s character saying an obviously foreshadowing line of dialogue that takes away any and every level of surprise during the pivotal third act. What was he thinking?

– Rules convenience. One clumsy level of storytelling comes from how quickly the humans adapt to their undead counterparts, that defines logic for the way things are interpreted in this particular setting. Character’s who lack the kind of intelligence to accurately interpret the meaning of human emotional response can apparently tell us everything there is to know about a first time invasion that they have no time to prepare for. I guess we can easily file this under the meta format that I mentioned earlier, but it just further adds to everything wrong with that level of disbelief in a genre like this. In order to save time for valuable exposition, we compartmentalize everything in a way that feels like vital scenes are missing from the overwhelming amount of knowledge that Driver’s character in particular conveys throughout the film.

– The performances. What a shame. Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, and Carol Kane, and not one of them are commanded with any kind of emotional depth or physical weight to the story they accompany. With the exception of Tilda Swinton as this badass sword-wielding morgue working heroine, the rest of the appearances of this exceptional ensemble fumble away any kind of measure to have an impact on the story, and none more tragic than Murray. This is a man who oozes charisma in his sleep, yet the lack of inspiration from Jarmusch’s control over him constantly gives his lack of energy in the film a paycheck-first kind of deal, and wastes away a real opportunity to take Bill in a new genre-defining direction that only further elaborates that there’s nothing this man can’t do. If I summarized the work of this cast in one word, it would be “Boring”, as far too much of their performances rely on your already pre-determined interest in them.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Directed By Brian Lynch

Starring – Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford

The Plot – Max (Oswalt) faces some major changes after his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) gets married and now has a child . On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets a farm dog named Rooster (Ford), and both attempt to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to rescue Max’s favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment, and Snowball (Hart) sets on a mission to free a white tiger named Hu from a circus.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Improvements on all things animation. Illumination Studios has always been a distant third in detailed animation, but thanks to the tightening of illustrations that fills this film, arguably the very best artistic film that the studio has ever produced, they can start to bridge the gap of their opposition. It isn’t just one thing but rather a barrage, as the believability behind stormy weather patterns is beautifully rendered, the expressions of animals during the most extreme occasions adds more to the comedic relief, and even the 3D effects give an immersive quality to everything flowing in frame that warrants paying a little extra to see this film. With time, this studio will hopefully continue this trend, and offer so much more than colorfully vibrant backgrounds against a city skyline that offers plenty of familiar geography to place this story accordingly.

– Talented cast. Oswalt is a more-than enthusiastic fill-in for Louie C.K, but it’s really the work of Slate and Hart who take center stage in incorporating intensity to their often familiar vocal tones. As Gidget, Slate is a force to be reckoned with, juggling an infatuation for Max all the while proving to the audience the extent of her cunning intellect. As to where the first film showed off Slate as a lover, this one cements her as a fighter, and her emoting of Gidget is my very favorite of this entire franchise. Hart should stick with animated properties for a while, because the combination of eccentric deliveries and polar opposite vocal capacity in comparison to that of his furry rendering, makes him perfect for voice range capabilities, and the focus and attention given to his character practically begs for a Snowball spin-off that feels just around the corner. New additions are those from Tiffany Haddish, Dana Carvey, and a wise, weathered dog leader voiced by none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. It rounds off arguably the brightest ensemble of comedic actors in quite some time, and prove that their talents serve a much bigger purpose than just physical humor in sight gags.

– Fluffy run time. This one clocks in at a measly 77 minutes, and with sharing time between three respective story arcs does so in a way that keeps the eagerness and intensity of the storytelling firmly in grip with regards to a youthful audience that sometimes slip away during slow periods of exposition. While this does create some problems for the fluidity of the transitions, which I will get to later, the confidence donated to each vital character receiving their own conflicts in the story gives the movie a three-movie-for-one quality within its pages that practically forces movement in the casual three act structure that can sometimes omit itself invisible in family genre cinema. There was never a time when I was bored or antsy watching this movie, and much credit goes to the producers of the film for knowing just how far to stretch each story before it becomes something in depth that it rightfully shouldn’t.

– Intelligence in gags. I said this about the first film, and it’s something that continues in this movie. The way the film takes real moments of familiarity from the pets in our own lives, and adds a layer of profound poignancy to each situation is something that not only reaches for audience participation, but also does so in a way that will have you intentionally remembering the occasions from this movie once you go home. This gives the film and its material a consistency in shelf life that many films in modern day don’t attain, and speaks volumes to the levels of attention that screenwriters Chris Renaud and Jonathan Del Val engage in to contrast with their audience’s. In that respect, the material itself feels very much fleshed out from real life, and performed in an exaggerated way that works because of its small amounts of truth that derive from these very humorously humbling moments of love from our best friends.

– Pre-credits rap video. I won’t give away much here, but Kevin Hart’s dream to be a rapper comes full circle in a spoof of a familiar rap track from the previous couple years that is given new context thanks to the world surrounding his character. Not since 2006’s “Waiting…” has a post-movie performance left such a lasting impression on me, and the work of creativity in rhymes combined with the sheer lunacy of the situation in mid-day form, makes this moment the one that stands out the most for me in terms of comic lasting power, and non-surprisingly gives the original track, which I hated tremendously, a new lease on life. If this song was heard on the radio even half as much as that original song, then I would be fine with it.

– Strong positive message. As is the case with every kids movie out today, this one has a takeaway message that bonds its respective subplots together for one cohesive beat, and it’s the importance of overcoming fear. Especially with younger audiences, this message will ring true from within them, because it’s at that age where battling adversities prepares them for the war that is adolescence, and it’s something that resonates on-screen in each of the fears that the main character’s have to overcome for the sake of their developments. If an on-screen message is presented strong enough, kids will take even more away from it, and thankfully the film never feels overly preachy or even condescending in the message it sends the next generation of adventure seekers home with.

NEGATIVES

– Incoherent structure. As I mentioned earlier, there are three different subplots competing for time, and while this does wonders in keeping the attention of younger audiences, it does nothing for experienced moviegoers who know how important seamless transitions really are to the progress of a particular narrative. The outline of each story feels episodic, mainly because of unshakeable predictability and adjacent plotting, which does the film no favors in establishing its story as a group effort like the first movie. Because of this triangle of direction, the script itself forgets certain early angles established early on (See Max’s protection of little boy) that would make great films on their own, but are relegated to split screen time with other stories not half as compelling. For my money, the Snowball story could easily be stretched out for his own spin-off, leaving the branches of the other two somewhat connected plots feeling cohesive because of the way one is the effect of the other’s cause.

– Lack of weight. The conflicts from this movie are practically non-existent, thanks in part to resolutions that often come too fast, and a shoe-horned antagonist character who feels completely wrong for this world. On the former, I could’ve used more time for fear or tribulation for the character’s embattled with their respective conflicts. This is where ten or fifteen minutes of additional screen time could’ve further fleshed out the urgency and vulnerability of these small pets in a big world setting, and given way to further audience participation who have shared the struggles that each character has gone through. As for the antagonist, it’s the loudest reminder that this is a cartoon kids movie, complete with bulging eyes, black ensemble, and a hatred for animals for no other reason than the script asked for it. Quick question, how many times have you seen a villain who owns an abusive zoo, where the protagonists have to rescue said animals from his clutches? If you’ve run out of fingers, so have I.

– Plot holes. When you consider that this is virtually a “Toy Story” ripoff, you must consider the rules established within the world that make absolutely no sense when you consider a sprinkle of logic. For one, many of these pets go missing for long periods of time that make me question why no human owner is freaking out about where they’ve gone. In addition to this, there are certain instances in the film where believability is stretched further than a “Fast and Furious” lesson on gravity. Some of my favorite examples are a dog outracing a train, two dogs riding a remote controlled toy car without it tipping over or losing speed, and a psychopathic old woman character who not only commits murder, but also sees no problem with owning a Siberian tiger. Considering much of this film is set-up with real world ideals and consequences, these instances soil the authenticity of the engagement, and disappointed me for how these films are still insulting the intelligence of their youthful audience.

– Additional complaints. While this will only be a problem for people who see advanced screenings of this film, the inclusion of a behind-the-scenes introduction that plays before the film is more than just a little spoiler-filled for the gags it gives away. Why would you include something like these before the film plays? It renders the power of your laughs weak because the audience has already seen it before the movie starts, and just feels redundant once it comes around in the movie itself. The trailers for this film were actually solid, in that they didn’t give much away other than spare instances of familiarity of the pets in our own lives, but this production video did absolutely no favors in those regards, and took away from material that by its own merits was effective at garnering a laugh or two on its original run through.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Aladdin

Directed By Guy Ritchie

Starring – Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Mena Massoud

The Plot – A street rat (Massoud) frees a genie (Smith) from a lamp, granting all of his wishes and transforming himself into a charming prince in order to marry a beautiful princess (Scott). But soon, an evil sorcerer (Marwan Kenzari) becomes hell-bent on securing the lamp for his own sinister purposes.

Rated PG for some action/peril

POSITIVES

– Vibrant production design. The essence of the Middle East is represented fruitlessly in the combination of flowing gowns and colorful set pieces that convey a Bollywood kind of production for the mainstream audience, and offer a bold presentation to bring forth through the live action transition. In fact, the sizzling flavor that continuously envelopes itself around this movie is visually unlike anything that Disney has produced to this point, and stands alone as the one chance that this film took in an otherwise calming sea of conventional renderings that sticks far too close to its animated original. In the visuals absorbing the atmosphere of the film, we get a visual translation too expressive not to indulge in, and the fiery texture of each property continuously commands attention to this fictional place, in that we wish it were real if only for one day.

– Will Smith’s Genie. Considering all of the controversy surrounding this role, it’s amazing that it turned out as well as it did. When the script isn’t trying to mold him into being Robin Williams flashy pizzazz Genie, Smith succeeds at maintaining the sharp velocity of the tongue that constantly keeps his co-stars in check, and for a brief glimpse offers something experimental to what we expected. Smith’s comic landing power hits about 50% from the field for me, and nailed about double that for my interest in the film, which only grew whenever his big screen presence invaded each frame and instilled a positive energy that kept you glued to the familiarity of it all. This definitely isn’t a paycheck film for Smith, and thanks to the excitement and prestige that he brings to the role, we get a shadow that is nearly equally imposing as Williams presence was to the 1992 original.

– Soundtrack of hits. Despite knowing everything that’s to come from Brad Kane, Bruce Adler, and Danny Troob’s original classic collection of time-cherished songs, the inclusion of hip-hop inspired beats and Bollywood dance production gave new life to these familiar audible beats of story narration, and led to infectious moments of delight when even the toughest critic could be won over. The dance choreography is sharp and boisterous with each continuous frame, and song chorus’s are stretched and bent in a way that experiments with a fresh take for the song, that I wish remakes like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella” would’ve experimented a bit more with. As to where “A Whole New World” was my favorite song from the 92 original, the slow build to a roaring kettle of “Prince Ali” takes the cake for me in this film, and especially stands out because of Smith’s cool demeanor that plays so seamlessly into the pulse of the background beat.

– Progressive with a positive P. I won’t spoil anything, but I took great merit in how this film invests further in Princess Jasmine, not only with a noticeable increase in screen time as opposed to how limited she feels in the original movie, but also in the evolution of her character, which successfully lands a surprise twist in the final minutes of the movie that I audibly commended. Disney has definitely been opening up their horizons with little girls in the audience who are looking for a character to dream themselves into, and thanks to the movie’s way of rewarding her with power both in a narrative perspective, as well as a closer split between screen time with her title co-star, the film creators bridge the gap wonderfully in priding them along, and manufacture a sense of female empowerment within the story that garners something new without it feeling like a distraction (See Captain Marvel)

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G. I was less than thrilled with the artist rendering of computer generation, both for being used too much and for not being refined enough to be believable in their weight played against the live properties in the film. If we’re making a live action remake of an animation movie, why is 40% of any shot you see at all times not authentic to the live action creativity of the picture? Why not just make another animated “Aladdin”? Aside from this, the finished product not only of the Genie, but also in the facial resonation of Abu the Monkey, really took a backseat to “The Jungle Book” remake in terms of fantasy believability, and stood out as a glaring negative each time the latter’s character made a close-up presence on-screen. As well, a scene involving the Cave of Wonders left me disappointed for how the lion’s head entrance didn’t move its mouth like it did in the animated counterpart. If this is because it ruins real world believability, stay tuned for my review of the ending coming up.

– Ritchie’s tweak directing. I’ve never been a big fan of Guy Ritchie’s style of directing. His influence over 2017’s “King Arthur” turned that Medieval setting film into “The Matrix”, for how he constantly slowed and sped up time during the most inappropriate moments, and unfortunately Guy has learned nothing in taking a two year hiatus. It’s really strange that some moments during songs are visually sped up, all the while some scenes during high intensity chase are slowed down in a way contains the adrenaline of the sequence. It made the film feel like someone was sitting on the remote, and frequently rolled over during the scenes that mattered most in character conflict and singing focus. If this is intended, please stop it now. It only comes across as hokey and ridiculous during a scene when you’re supposed to be on the edge of your seat.

– Inconsistent pacing. 1992’s “Aladdin” is a 92 minute movie that never sags or stretches the boundaries of its material. The same cannot be said for this remake, as the two hour runtime, with very little impactful extras, makes for a testy sitting that is especially prominent during the film’s bloated second act. For my money, the first thirty minutes of the film were easily the most engaging, as the combination of Aladdin’s street life and his mission into the cave were cast with such entangling urgency that none of the remainder of the film can ever come close to matching. The second act spends its time between rule setting for the Genie, as well as a high class gala affair that feels like it’s being played in real time. Not only did this area of the film slow down my building interest for the movie, but it more than any other padded the run time for unnecessary stretching of resolutions. The third act improves slightly, but is a defeated effort by that time for the immense jump in logic and off-the-wall lunacy that the closing minutes become saddled with.

– Casting decisions. I knew nothing about Massoud or Scott before this movie, and their roles as the two leads won’t leave me any further interested in wanting to dive into their limited filmography. These two lack any kind of personality that can’t be expressed in spare verbs, and if the overall lack of romantic chemistry between them doesn’t establish how wrong for the parts they are, the mundane deliveries of emotionally-charged diatribes certainly will. Speaking of Will, did I mention how much the movie fumbles whenever he isn’t on camera? We’re left with what feels like two stage actors who constantly don’t believe what they’re saying, and are only passed by an antagonist performance who I couldn’t stop laughing at. Every little boy wears his father’s clothes and pretends to be him at some point. I didn’t expect to see a grown man in a major motion picture doing this, as Marwan Kenzari feels about as threatening as a game of fantasy dress-up. Considering Jafar is one of the most evil and imposing antagonists in Disney animated history, the disservice of casting someone who is not only the same size as Aladdin, but also someone so visually opposite of what I expected from his animated counterpart. I can understand going in a fresh direction with a character, but the work of this trio lacked the magic of translating such iconic figures from the Disney library, underscoring what should be the easiest of decisions.

– No respect. I can overlook company greed to remake a property and manipulating audiences into seeing it, because, hey, childhood, but to not credit the original screenwriters from the 92 original is not only a slap in the face, but a kick to the balls of everything that is right with respectful representation. The screenplay here is credited to John August and Guy Ritchie, and while there are some light changes to the film in terms of material, to not commend the work of Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio is a colossal mistake, considering 80% of the film is still from the story beats and character traits that they established from that original movie. There are even vital scenes in this film that are verbatim (Word-for-word) to the original film for how they play out, and the lack of attention given to the source material gives the closing notes of the film a grave feeling of plagiarism that shouldn’t be overlooked by even the most casual of film audiences.

– Ridiculous ending. LIGHT SPOILERS. You’ve been warned. I can understand this sort of thing in a cartoon, but during a live action movie, and even a kids one at that, the laws of travel aren’t negated because of what’s cute and appropriate for what fits into the story. With that said, a character gets transported to the ends of the Earth by their opposition, and two scenes later is back in Agrabah, like some touch of “The Dark Knight Returns” magic that I don’t care to relive any time soon. In addition to this, the final conflict basically never happens, at least not in a way that requires any of the character’s to get their hands dirty, and it all wraps up with the kind of convenient bow only necessary when you’re gift-wrapping something you know will be met with evil glares or family emancipation. Translating a cartoon to live action is a good time to take the ridiculous out of cartoons, not bring them to the real world. Yet one more reason why live action Disney remakes aren’t necessary in crafting something freshly unique to a new generation.

My Grade: 4/10 or D+